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URBAN THEOLOGIAN RADIO REFLECTION: RACISM: A BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE (WITH JEMAR TISBY)—#55

(As with all of our blog posts, the views expressed within belong to the individual writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of RCC.)

I need to begin with a confession. It’s multifaceted:

• I’m a little scared because I’m going to say some crazy things. Writers, though, write: bottom line.

• I promise not to cuss.

• I promise not to bring up the presidential election.

• I’m working on a book right now about my experience with cancer, and I’ve been wanting for it to be more than just a book about cancer. While I cannot say that its other topic is racism, I can say that—generally speaking—my own life has always circled around an agenda involving racism. I’ve got my artistic agenda, and I’ve got my “other” agenda. What is the appropriate response to prejudice or bigotry (the terms Vocab prefers over racism)? So, well, it’s very hard for me to let some things go or to not speak up.

• I’m white. And it’s an issue. I guess. (See below.)

• I won’t do the topic or the show justice at all, so you should listen here: http://urbantheologianradio.com/category/podcast/

Well, there’s so much; it’s tough to know where to begin. Allow me to introduce the guest speaker, Jemar Tisby. Tisby is the President of the Reformed African-American Network. Go here for more information.

If this topic is of special interest to you, two books were recommended. (If an RCC member would like to review one for our blog, please contact me.) First, Jarvis Williams’ book, One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology, was noted. Second, J. Daniel Hays’ book, From Every People and Nation: A Biblical Theology of Race, was recommended (Vocab especially plugged this one).

I’ll just highlight stuff, and bring up some charged issues—in the hope that they begin candid conversations among Christians. I’ve heard a lot of the world’s offerings on this. Many would suggest I’ve been fully indoctrinated by liberal ideology. So, give it to me, Christians. Set me straight.

Tisby pointed out that churches, for the most part, are segregated on Sunday mornings. There are churches for black people, and there are churches for white people. I think that most of us would agree (and the distinction is even more pronounced in reformed circles—which is one reason why RAAN is so important). Where we might disagree is on whether this is problematic or not. Tisby argues that it is. Ultimately, he suggests that we should actively seek to model the beloved community.

And this is the question at the heart of a conversation on race. Is this a big deal? Follow-up questions might include the following: how big of a deal is it? What do you personally need to do about it?

This is a big deal. As a fiction writer, I might say that this is the major American narrative. While racism is certainly a global phenomenon, it is so woven into our American history that we are necessarily involved. It’s our story. Ernest Hemingway famously said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that.” For me, as a writer, I’d say the American story is race-haunted—so enmeshed in race-relations, in skin color dramas, that we really cannot speak meaningfully about the United States apart from acknowledging and coming to terms with its significance.

Well, some caveats. Tisby argues that “race is a construct” (acknowledging that there is disagreement here). One hears this kind of stuff a lot in academia. Tisby points out that race is a construct as it pertains to skin color; it’s a legacy of slavery—used to distinguish between slave and non-slave. It is not biblical. Paul says that we are of one blood. (Acts 17:26 reads as follows: “And [He] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation . . .”) There is one race, biologically speaking. We are all humans, and we are all made in the image of God. Despite crazy scientific attempts in the past to determine that there is an underlying biological difference between people of different hues, we know there is no difference. When the Bible makes distinctions, it distinguishes beliefs: there are the redeemed and there are the unredeemed. Spiritual distinctions, not skin color distinctions, are the reality.

The very idea, then, of racism might be problematic. Vocab prefers to discuss prejudice and bigotry. He recoils at the idea of interracial marriage, because it’s absurd when one believes that there is one race. It also calls into questions movements such as Black Lives Matter. (I’m actually not one to go nuts on this issue—surprise, surprise! All language is a construct, per se—and racism is a useful term, as is interracial marriage—though I see his point. I also get a little perturbed when people get dismissive of things like Black Lives Matter. Frankly, it sounds a little too self-righteous to me when people snap back, “All Lives Matter.” I’m, like, whatever. Dude, there’s a problem. That’s what’s being said.) So, yeah. Racism. Prejudice. Bigotry. Call it whatever you’d like. I genuinely find it not useful to get caught up in the semantics.

Pastor Vermon similarly articulated his thoughts. He noted that these terms (“race” and “racism”) work for multiple linguistic and some historical reasons . . . especially because sometimes people want to use other terms as a way to get around forthrightly dealing with an ongoing real problem (one that has been there since the beginning of the world and will be there until Jesus comes back). He also pointed out, off the show, that the term Black Lives Matter is a contextualized statement. It actually means Black Lives Matter Too (but has been abbreviated to Black Lives Matter). Black Lives Matter is actually a contextualized way of saying All Lives Matter. There’s also a HUGE difference between the official Black Lives Matter organization as represented by the official website, and the various grassroots Black Lives Matter movements around the country. (I’m pretty much quoting Vermon here; I don’t want to plagiarize! I do think—this is me—it’s silly to miss the import of the message because of a dispute over the verbiage.)

Don’t real estate agents always say, “Location, location, location”?

We might say, “Context, context, context.”

Is it a big deal? To you? Why? Why not?

Yeah, I know you’d say you’re not a racist.

Listen. I’m going to put myself out there to answer this. I really am. I’m going to make myself uber-vulnerable. I’m going to do this, because I think racism is critical. Christians need to get on it. Like now. As Vocab noted, if we don’t get this figured out, Islam or the Christian Identity (white supremacists) will: do we want that? (Writer Talk: we already see what happened when Christians let go of the Arts—others stepped in and took over.)

I like to think of myself as non-racist. I feel a swell in my heart when I note that I married someone who isn’t a racist, too. We both came from non-racist peeps. Believe me, I listened for slurs. I did. That was my thing. I could marry into crazy. That, I could do. But racists. Nope.

And, yeah, the swell in my heart is there again when I think about my kids, how we’ve actively sought to raise non-racists. No racists allowed. And—heart still swelling—it seems to be working! My girls are not little racists! Yay!

So imagine my surprise when this happened: My husband and I, along with our two outstanding kids, were at the Phoenix Art Museum, getting our culture on. It just so happened that a wedding was going on. And it seemed to be a pretty high society sort of thing, lots of sophisticated types wandering around. Most people were black. So, we were walking down the hall, headed to my favorite weird gallery—which is the gallery featuring Philip C. Curtis—and we passed a pretty elegant-looking black guy in a tux. My eight-year-old whispered, innocently—okay????, “Is that President Obama?”

Now, you get why this isn’t so hot.

When I told Tim, he was all, like, “She said that?”

Our kids don’t say this kind of stuff!

But they do!

Now, I don’t want to make her feel bad; I’m trying to make a point. This is the same kid who, just yesterday, came to get me when the doorbell rang, and said, “There’s a man at the door.” When I got to the door, I saw it was a black man. Two things went through my mind in a simultaneous flash: my kid did not feel it necessary to comment on his skin color, but I was instantly aware of his skin color. Me. Jennifer. And is that something to be ashamed of? How is that to be processed?

Are we supposed to be colorblind?

I have this one friend who I’ll just paraphrase right now. She says, “If you don’t know I’m a black woman, then I’m not doing my job.”

Oh, yeah?

So, let’s burrow into the awkward, unmentionable cesspool of negotiating skin color. What if I just present myself to you, as Classic White Girl Who’s Not A Racist, and you respond?

That same friend, an avid reader, doesn’t like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn—because it’s racist! This nearly incites violence in me. I get nuts. That book is absolutely, unequivocally, totally anti-racism! So, when I flipped out about this to another friend, she said (more paraphrasing), “Well, I don’t think the book is racist either, but I’m not black—so I don’t really think I can say.”

Why not? is what I’m thinking . . .

Why can’t a white person talk about this? At some point, Pastor Vermon and I are probably going to write something about Ta-Nehesi Coates’ award-winning book, Between The World and Me. Coates is black, and he offers a very articulate discussion on race. Vermon and I haven’t gotten into it yet, but when I criticized Coates’s thinking, my avid-reader-black-friend-who’s-way-too-diplomatic-to-get-dismissive-of-me, kinda let me know that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

True?

Really, I think more candid conversations need to talk place—addressing the subtleties of differences, and our understanding of them: this may be more critical than trying to figure out whether or not it’s better to use racism or prejudice.

I’m full of anecdotes. Tim and I have this hilarious book that I got at some point early in our marriage: Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions by Christian Lander. It’s pretty funny, and I have to admit that I’ve always admired comics like Tina Fey, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock, who sometimes push the envelope a bit too much on the topic of race. I really long to write like that, but—in truth—my life experiences are “too white” for me to do it well. I’m not the woman for the job. Bummer.

But that won’t stop me from getting personal here.

This is a true story. When I was nine or ten, I was with my mom at a department store. No clue which one. There was a mom and a kid, who was maybe two or three. He was a little black boy and he was wearing a Cookie Monster sweatshirt. I still remember him to this day! Because he was the cutest kid in the world, and—you’re not going to like me—I wanted to have a little black boy! I mean, I really did. It was truly part of my life-scheming. Had our marriage and my health gone in a different direction, we would’ve pursued adoption. Like really. Like, yes, I’d like to adopt a black boy. How crazy is that? In my mental machinations, I sort of accepted that I’m probably not well-suited for the challenges of being a mom to a special-needs child. But I could do race! Yes, I could!

Is this inherently problematic? Racist/prejudice?

Oh, there’s more. (I get to talk about this, but my husband never can.) I could find George Clooney, Rick on The Walking Dead, Colin Farrell, Jon Hamm, Johnny Depp, and Bono attractive, but if I add Idris Elba and Lenny Kravitz to the list, guess what happens?

Yes, that happens. What no one wants to say.

First, someone says—really—that I like black guys. And I think two things: A. That’s what you get from the numbers? (Maybe it’s an Irish guy thing? Tim’s Irish, after all. I see this, though: old men!) B. What if I do? (Again, Tim is not allowed to address this or allowed to make his own lists. Ever.)

Is this inherently problematic? Racist/prejudice?

Still more. On the subject of finding people attractive. In truth, I’m still totally stung by this one. There was this photo circulating on social media of a criminal who happened to be a light-skinned black guy who was rather good-looking and ended up getting offered a modeling contract. I went ahead and kept the circulation going. I really can’t tell you how much lambasting I got from this. The big suggestion was that I, white girl, subconsciously favored light-skinned peoples. And, like a proper, white not-racist girl, I offered my haberdashery on the beauty of mixed races. But, really, the criticism was stronger than my justifications.


I’m still reeling a little from this one, frankly—because it freaks me out to think I’ve got some subtle racist thing going. But, there you go.

Is this inherently problematic? Racist/prejudice?

Finally, the question the Beloved Community is not addressing: can black people really dance better than white people?

I end with a final tale. When I was growing up, my mom’s best friend was an adoptive mom to a multi-racial (sorry, Vocab: I keep using these terms!) family. She was white. The dad was white. Lots of white people all around. Mostly white people. But, you know what? The black kid we hung out with could dance better than the rest of us from the get-go. And I ask you this, Beloved Community, why is that so?

Can black people dance better than white people?

I dare you to answer that!

Are the asking of these questions inherently problematic? Racist/prejudice?

In conclusion, when we hear shows like this and there’s under-the-breath huffing and puffing about the irrelevance of the issue, or when there are suggestions that race relations are passé, I can only say that my own stories—which really aren’t all that flattering to me—tell me it is still a critical topic of discussion, and Vocab was entirely right: We better figure it out.

All People. All of Jesus.
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